The widow of the Shoney’s founder recalls the rise of the food empire in the Mountain State.
Slide into a red, vinyl booth and peruse the menu of country cooking, even though there’s a good chance you’ll choose the All-You-Can-Eat special or take your place in line at the beloved buffet. For more than 60 years, Shoney’s has been a staple of home-style dining in West Virginia. The famous breakfast buffet, the All-American burger, the iconic Big Boy, and the Shoney Bear have all earned spots as fixtures in our dining culture, and it all began in Charleston.
The first restaurant named Shoney’s opened in Charleston in 1953 as a franchise of Big Boy hamburgers. The story goes that owner Alex Schoenbaum held a contest among his employees to decide on a new restaurant name, and Shoney’s won. Alex, who passed away in 1996, got his start in the restaurant business in 1947 when he opened the forerunner to Shoney’s—Parkette—beside his family’s bowling alley in Charleston. A half a century later, Shoney’s had spread to 34 states with 1,400 locations, plus 400 Captain D’s seafood restaurants. Fifth Quarter and Pargo’s were also part of the company, as were a chain of motels called Shoney’s Inn.
Alex’s widow, Betty Schoenbaum, can remember when a meal at Shoney’s cost less than a dollar. In 1947, not long after the couple moved to Charleston, Alex opened the drive-in restaurant, Parkette. “The first building cost $2,500,” Betty says. “My husband told his father, ‘You do $100,000 a year business there.’ Now that’s when hamburgers were a quarter. In fact you could get a hamburger, French fries, and a piece of strawberry pie for 50 cents.”
Prior to Parkette, Alex’s family had been in the bowling business. During the Second World War, his three brothers went into the service. “His father became ill and his mother was left home by herself, so Alex had to run the bowling alleys.” But Alex wasn’t content to stay in the bowling business, and so he turned to the world of food. At Parkette, Alex started calling his hamburger the Big Boy—his nickname. “He was sort of a macho man,” Betty says. “All-American football player, size 20 neck, size 14EE shoes, hands he couldn’t find gloves for, and a head he couldn’t find a hat for. But he wasn’t tall.” The Big Boy burger was the restaurant’s signature item, but Alex didn’t have the trademark. Someone beat him to it.
“My husband got a letter in 1950 telling him he couldn’t use the name Big Boy—that it had been registered by a man in California called Bob’s Big Boy,” Betty says. By the time Alex got the letter, he already had an early franchise agreement with the owner of Frisch’s restaurants in Cincinnati. Alex and Dave Frisch met through the Ohio Restaurant Association and Frisch liked the name Big Boy so well he asked if he could use it. Then they found out about the existing trademark. “So my husband and Dave Frisch met the other man at a National Restaurant Association meeting in Chicago and asked him if he’d be interested in franchising,” Betty says. That became the arrangement—Shoney’s would be a chain of Big Boy franchises. Other Big Boy franchises have different names across the country—Eat’n Park , Elby’s, Marc’s, and Manners, to name a few. Shoney’s was one of the biggest franchises, with a territory covering much of the southeastern United States. In fact, the chain outgrew the constraints of its franchise agreement.
“In 1975, we had saturated our territory,” Betty says. “We had to go national, so we had to get rid of the Big Boy. We couldn’t use it anymore because there were franchises using him already.” By 1984, the signature sandwich was renamed the All-American Burger and the Shoney Bear became mascot. The business continued to grow steadily into the 1990s. At the height of its success in the late ’90s, the chain had 1,400 Shoney’s restaurants and 400 Captain D’s restaurants.
In 1996, Alex died suddenly, leaving everything to his wife, who was then 79 and had never been involved in the business. She was a homemaker and a mother. “My husband was from Virginia, and southern women didn’t work,” she says. “His mama didn’t work, and I didn’t work either.” But she learned the ins and outs of the company. By 2000, Shoney’s was sold to Lone Star Funds. In 2007, the significantly smaller chain was sold again. It is now owned by Royal Capital Corporation. In West Virginia, many Shoney’s restaurants have closed, but 15 locations remain open across the state. The original restaurant is long gone, but in its place stands a small monument honoring Alex’s empire. An even bigger monument, though, is the Schoenbaums’ philanthropy. Alex once raised $31 million for the Salvation Army, and he was an advocate of sports and recreation opportunities for kids.
Betty has kept the family name alive through philanthropy. The Schoenbaums are visible around Charleston and across West Virginia through projects and scholarships promoting sports and recreation, the arts, and human needs. At 94, Betty spends most of the year in Florida, but she visits West Virginia as often as she can. The Mountain State is where she and her late husband raised their four children and found success beyond their wildest dreams.
One of Betty’s first projects after her husband’s death was to provide half of the funding for a soccer stadium at Coonskin Park in Charleston. Alex was a football player, but he told his wife there should be more soccer facilities in the area. “He said, ‘We should give every child an opportunity to be in sports,’” she says.
In Charleston, in addition to the soccer arena, an amphitheater stage, symphony chair, and family resource center all bear the Schoenbaum name. In Columbus, Ohio State University named a campus building and a family life center for the Schoenbaums. In Sarasota, Florida, the Schoenbaum Family Foundation gives to a number of causes. And in Kiryat Yam, Israel, the Alex and Betty Schoenbaum Science, Education, Cultural and Sports Campus is dedicated to encouraging a tribe of Ethiopian Jews who have immigrated to Israel. The project she is most proud of in West Virginia is the Schoenbaum Family Enrichment Center on Charleston’s West Side. Betty is a firm believer in volunteer work and relishes her role as a fundraiser, motivational speaker, and philanthropist. “I’m so thrilled,” she says. “I’ve had the joy of giving all of this away.”